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Land bank triple play 

Renewed efforts in Lansing to create a land bank in Detroit are under way and should again cause heightened anxiety for the City Council.

Last year, City Council and Detroit nonprofits effectively lobbied to kill an attempt in the state Legislature to create the new agency, claiming it would crown Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick the king of city real estate, with carte blanche ability to sell city property as he and his appointees saw fit. Kilpatrick had originally introduced the bill when he was in the state House. As seen in Cleveland, Atlanta and elsewhere, a land bank would amass all land owned by the government, estimated to be at least 40,000 Detroit parcels, and take in new properties the city had foreclosed upon. The land bank would own the parcels and could bundle them if necessary to facilitate sales to developers.

This year, state Rep. Steve Tobocman, D-Detroit, introduced a bill to allow the City Council as well as the mayor to approve a plan for a land bank, likely resulting in a sharing of power. In addition, state Sen. Buzz Thomas, D-Detroit, has reintroduced the controversial bill he put forth last year. And an alternate bill was introduced in the House by a group of three Republicans and three Democrats. Their bill would allow Kilpatrick — a former leader in the state House with many friends there — to set up a land bank without a City Council vote. Tobocman, a lawyer specializing in Detroit housing issues, says a land bank would be great for Detroit if done correctly. He’s been meeting with legislators, council members and nonprofit leaders to form a consensus, which was sorely lacking last year. Last week, CDAD, an organization of some 140 nonprofit development groups, backed Tobocman’s measure. Council President Maryann Mahaffey says his bill is a “possibility.” But overall, Mahaffey says, the land bank proposals are suspect. “As far as I’m concerned, we already have a land bank in the Department of Planning and Development.” She says Thomas’ bill is a “gift to developers” that lacks requirements for public input, hearings and an ethics stipulation. While the city Planning and Development Department obviously is not effective at disposing of city-owned parcels, Mahaffey says she doesn’t think Lansing’s land bank will be any more capable. Further, she and other council members say Lansing should not make policy for Detroit. Indeed, the matter is a power struggle for City Council, which currently approves every sale and development project and would lose this authority under the new proposals. “The critical issue is control, and whether or not this is a power grab,” says Tobocman. “When we address that issue, 90 percent of the passion and concern is laid to rest.”

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